Human Rights Watch on U.S. Travel Ban

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Testimony of José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director
Americas Division
Human Rights Watch
July 15, 2003

Thank you for your invitation to discuss the human rights impact of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I would like to express my support for ending the travel ban. The ban, which contains narrow exceptions for journalists, people with relatives in Cuba, and certain other groups, has not served its stated purpose. It has in no way proved to be an effective tool for promoting human rights in Cuba. It has, instead, infringed the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens and limited valuable opportunities for the free exchange of ideas between Americans and Cubans.
In my view, the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2003,” introduced in the Senate on April 30, 2003, by a bipartisan group of senators including Sen. Michael Enzi and Sen. Max Baucus, represents a welcome step toward protecting the rights of both Cubans and Americans. A policy of allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba would do more to encourage the cause of reform in that country than the current misguided policy of isolation.


Despite the general ban on travel to Cuba, thousands of Americans have gone there in recent years. According to press reports, about 154,000 Americans traveled to Cuba legally last year under journalist, academic, humanitarian, religious and other licenses, including “people to people” exchanges, the fastest-growing category. An unknown number of Americans, perhaps up to 60,000 annually, traveled to Cuba illegally.

Yet, since President Bush took office, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has threatened well over 1,000 Americans with expensive fines for violating the travel ban. Scores of others are being investigated for alleged violations.

Worse, the rules on travel to Cuba were recently tightened. Under new regulations issued in March, no more licenses will be issued for “people-to-people” exchanges once the existing licenses expire.

Human Rights Watch strongly opposes these developments.

Exchange of Ideas via Human Contacts

It should be clear, at this late date, that the United States’ more than forty-year-old policy of isolation and embargo toward Cuba has been a failure. The embargo has not only been unsuccessful in bringing about human rights improvements in Cuba, it has become counterproductive. While providing President Castro with a pretext for his government’s repressive policies, it alienates Washington’s erstwhile allies.

Because travel provides a direct and practical means of sharing information and opinions, limiting travel restricts the free exchange of ideas. Visitors to Cuba may often be in a position to add new perspectives to the public debate in Cuba’s relatively closed society. President Jimmy Carter, for example, spoke openly about human rights and the need for democratization when he visited Cuba in May 2002.

International human rights standards favor the freedom to travel and, in particular, the right to the free exchange of information and ideas via human contacts. Under the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and successive accords reached by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the United States agreed to protect “human contacts” and oppose any bans on travel and telephone communications. The principles set forth in these instruments would clearly favor ending the Cuba travel ban, which directly restricts contacts between Cubans and Americans.


Now, more than ever, the U.S. should be trying to mount a broad international effort to pressure the Cuban government to institute reforms. Human rights conditions in Cuba have deteriorated significantly over the course of the year. Seventy-five people were recently convicted of violating laws that criminalize a broad range of nonviolent statements of opinion, receiving an average sentence of more than 19 years.

Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting reform in Cuba, the United States has undermined its own influence by pursuing policies condemned by the rest of the world. In its efforts to isolate Fidel Castro, it has only isolated itself. No other country in the world bans travel to Cuba, and the rest of the world sees the travel ban as a bizarre anachronism.

In the U.S., as well, there is widespread support in favor of lifting the ban. For three successive years, members of the House of Representatives have voted by increasing margins in favor of lifting the ban on travel to Cuba. Last year, they supported ending the ban by a margin of 262-167.

It is to be hoped that this year Congress will finally pass legislation to protect Americans’ freedom to travel by ending the ban on travel to Cuba.